Cancer is something that has the potential to affect everyone, regardless of what occupation you have, how old you are, where you live or what you do as a hobby- aviation is therefore no exception to this. Studies have shown that the risk of flight crews being diagnosed with cancer increases after 10 years of employment1. After that it has been observed that the chances of being diagnosed only increase slightly with duration of employment.
The risk of being a flight crew member and getting cancer can be related to how young you are when you start employment and also how long you are in the same line of work for. It has been observed that flying internationally increases your risk of getting certain types of cancer. This does not mean to say that every international pilot or cabin crew member will get cancer at some stage.
This page is focused on cancer rates in airline pilots (and air crew), rather than general aviation pilots. This is because general aviation pilots tend to fly at lower altitudes where their exposure to radiation and the crossing of time zones is very limited.
Causes of cancer in aviation
- Disruptions of circadian rhythm
- Hormonal imbalance due to disruption of circadian rhythm
- Increased exposure to cosmic radiation
- Increased exposure to electromagnetic fields
Types of cancer (primarily) observed in flight crew
- Breast Cancer
- Prostate Cancer
- Skin Melanoma
Lifestyle factors also need to be taken into consideration when analysing cancer rates amongst pilots/cabin crew. For example it is well known that excessive sun tanning can also lead to an increased risk in skin melanoma. Other factors including diet and other lifestyle choices should be examined when determining someone's potential cancer risk.
It is also common for female air crew to have children later in life which can also increase the risk of breast cancer 4. Female air crew having children later in life has been linked to a 10% increase in the pobability of getting breast cancer later in life 5.
Air crew, particularly pilots are required to undergo regular medical exams. These regular medical exams increase the chance of cancer being detected at an early stage.
Factors that can affect the amount of cosmic radiation recieved by the body6:
- Altitude: the higher (closer to the sun), the higher the risk
- Latitude: the closer to the poles, the higher the risk
- Duration: the more time spent in the air, the higher the risk
- Solar Flares
A 2001 study of a cohort of 3144 Norwegian female flight attendants found that after ten years of service 38 of the women were found to have breast cancer1. E.A.Whela also published an article in the Occupational and Environmental Journal 5 which identifies that female air crew have a 30% increase in the likelihood of getting breast cancer.
A cohort of 6,000 German Pilots were examined between the years of 1960-2004 and the research found that 405 of the men had passed away, 127 of them due to cancer.2. This rate is higher than the national average.
A study of American female flight attendands found that the rates of those with breast cancer was significantly higher for those that flew international routes than those who primarily flew the domestic networks.
A significant trend was also observed in the number of male pilots who contracted prostate cancer and who flew internationally when compared to those who only flew domestically.
It has also been observed that cancer rates can be linked to high altitude flight and even more so when high altitude flight is conducted in the polar regions 5.
The rates of skin cancer amongst pilots is seen to increase with the number of flight hours the pilot does3.
Malignant Melanoma rates in female and male air crew can be as much as 2-3 times the expected rate than for the general population 5.
Queries regarding the research:
One flaw in the research used to support this article is that the cabin crew are referred to as being female and the pilots male. Although historically this may be the case, females can be increasingly seen in the cockpit and also males as flight attendants.
It could be noted that cancer rates are also being seen to increase as long-haul flights are now becoming the norm. Also traditionally air travel was quite expensive and the aircraft were unable to travel long distances without having to refuel. With the increases in technology and the globalization of air travel, we are seeing a huge increase in the frequency of flights and also the range of destinations avaliable.
There are many simple and affordable ways that can help reduce the likelihood of cancer. Some of these methods include78:
- Don't (or limit) tobacco usage
- Maintain a Healthy Diet
- Eat lots of fruit and vegetables
- Maintain a healthy weight through regular excercise
- Aim for 30+ minutes of excerise a day
- Limit exposure to the sun, including:
- Stay out of the midday sun if possible
- Apply sun block regularly
- Stay in the shade if possible
- Wear sun protective gear, e.g. hat, t-shirt, sunglasses
- Take screenings seriously
- Have the necessary vacines, e.g. HPV vacine
1. World Health Organisation; International Agency for Research on Cancer. (2010). Painting, Firefighting, and Shiftwork. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, 98, 563-764.
2. Hammer, G. P., Blettner, M., Langner, I., & Zeeb, H. (2012, June). Cosmic radiation and mortality from cancer among male German airline pilots: Extended cohort follow-up. European Journal of Epidemiology, 27(6), 419-429.
3. Dos Santos Silva, I., De Stavola, B., & Pizzi, C. (2012). Cancer incidence in professional flight crew and air traffic control officers: Disentangling the effect of occupational versus lifestyle exposures. International Journal of Cancer.
4. Cancer Research UK. (2010, March 16). Air Travel and Cancer. Retrieved September 23, 2012, from Cancer Research UK: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/healthyliving/cancercontroversies/airtravel/air-travel-and-cancer
5. Whelan, E. A. (2003). Cancer incidence in airline cabin crew. Occupational & Environmental Medicine Journal, 60(11), 805-806.
6. Sullivan, B. N. (2010, February 8). Aircrew Exposure to Cosmic Radiation. Retrieved September 24, 2012, from AircrewHealth.com: http://aircrewhealth.com/Topics/hazards/radiation.htm
7. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2010, September 21). Cancer prevention: 7 tips to reduce your risk. Retrieved September 24, 2012, from Mayo Clinic; Adult Health: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cancer-prevention/CA00024
8. Centres For Disease Control and Prevention. (2011, October 27). Cancer Prevention. Retrieved September 24, 2012, from Centres For Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/prevention/
Interesting articles regarding cancer rates in air crew: